Boris Johnson is facing fresh warnings from senior US politicians to “abandon” plans to unilaterally override the Brexit withdrawal agreement, or jeopardise the prospect of a future trade deal with Washington.
The joint comments from four congressmen, led by the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Elliot Engel, came as the prime minister’s proposed legislation cleared the first hurdle in the Commons on Monday evening.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis conceded last week that the Internal Markets Bill breaks international law in a “very specific and limited way” – leading to condemnation from across the political spectrum.
Highlighting the potentially fatal impact of the bill on the prospect of a free trade agreement with the US, the congressmen wrote in a letter to the prime minister: “We were so disturbed by the reports about your government’s efforts to undermine the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement that, if true, could have disastrous for the Good Friday Agreement and broader process to maintain peace on the island of Ireland.
“We appreciate the challenges that your country faces as it stares down the 15 October deadline for a negotiated agreement – but an Ireland divided by a hard border risks inflaming old tensions that very much still fester today and undoing decades of progress that the United States, Republic of Ireland, and United Kingdom achieved together.”
On the prospect of a future agreement, the senior US politicians said they agreed with the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who last week claimed there would be “absolutely no chance” of a trade deal with Washington passing Congress should the government “imperil” the Good Friday Agreement.
The letter, which was also signed by Mr Engel’s fellow Democrats Richard Neal and William Keating, as well as Republican Peter King, added: “If these reported plans were to go forward, it would be difficult to see how these conditions would be met.”
They added: "Many in the United States and in Congress consider the issues of the Good Friday Agreement and a potential US-UK Free Trade Agreement inextricably linked.
“With the issues raised in this letter in mind, we therefore urge you to abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement and ensure that Brexit negotiations do not undermine the decades of progress to bring peace in Northern Ireland and future options for the bilateral relationship between our two countries.”
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, is currently on an official visit to Washington, and is expected to meet with his counterpart Mike Pompeo and Ms Pelosi, in an attempt to reassure her over the government’s controversial Brexit plans.
In response to the letter, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “The PM has been clear that we’re taking these steps to make sure that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is upheld in all circumstances and harmful defaults do not inadvertently come into play which could jeopardise the huge gains of the peace process.
“We are absolutely committed to no hard border and no border infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland and N Ireland. This is about a legal safety net and not having east-west checks suddenly imposed which run directly counter to Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
“We will continue to engage with our US partners on a bipartisan basis to ensure that our positions are understood and to ensure we agree a trade deal with widespread support in the US.”
The congressmen’s remarks also came amid signs of a compromise between rebel Conservatives and No 10 over the legislation, with the prime minister reported to have met with MPs threatening to add amendments to the bill.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said the government was working to ensure there was a “balance” should the powers in the Internal Market Bill ever need to be used, as senior Tory MP Bob Neil called for ministers to create a parliamentary lock, meaning MPs would have to approve use of the powers.
“The issue is this – we want to make sure that if we hit a situation where we have this kind of dislocation, this kind of crisis if you like, then we can act swiftly to bring into power the necessary regulations," Mr Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“And I think while, absolutely we have got parliamentary procedures to allow secondary legislation to come into force with debate and scrutiny, we have to get the balance right.
“I want to make sure we are fleet of foot when it comes to the crunch but that at the same time to make sure MPs have their say. That’s what the prime minister wants, that’s what he said in parliament, and I’m sure we’ll find a way to do that in a manner that is acceptable to all Conservative colleagues.”